In the previous post, When good gear goes bad, I talked about beloved gear that has arrived at the end of its life. One of those pieces is my beloved REI Shuksan jacket, which is an eVent rain shell. It died shortly after my latest Alaska trip, and unfortunately it isn't made any longer, so its replacement will not be easy to find. I thought I would take give you some insight into what I look for in a rain shell, and when it is time to replace a shell jacket.
For me, the most important aspect of any rain shell, is the waterproof breathable fabric that the jacket is made out of. My last jacket was eVent, which is a waterproof membrane that allows vapor to flow from inside the jacket to outside without allowing water to move from the outside in. It is important to understand every rain shell is waterproof - a garbage bag is water proof - but what you are paying for is breathability. As you go up in price, you go up in breathability. It is the difference between a $99 jacket, and $399 jacket. Not the only difference, but a big one. So why eVent? because it is more breathable than gore-tex. Gore-tex revolutionized the outerwear industry. Away went rubber rain coats, and they were replaced with supple material that was both waterproof and breathable. Meaning you could work up a sweat and remain dry. I have owned many gore-tex jackets, and after using eVent I vowed I would never go back. It may be hard to keep that promise, but more on that later. Another thing to keep in mind is that many companies make their own version of gore-tex. Things like TNF's Hyvent, Marmot's Preccip, Patagonia's H2NO or REI's Elements are similar designs to gore-tex fabric. They tend to be less expensive which translates to not as breathable.
The second thing I look for is panels, and construction. When talking about panels, I am referring to how many pieces of fabric are connected together to make the jacket itself. The more panels that make up the jacket, the better fit you will have, but it also means you have more seams to seal. The more seams you have to seal the more the jacket costs, because it is more labor intensive to manufacture. To me it is an indicator that the designer and manufacturers "gave a shit" about making a highly functioning jacket. Then, once I see the number of panels I look at how the jacket is constructed, are the seams stitched and taped? or welded, which lasts longer, sits flatter against your body and of course costs more. Are the zippers waterproof? or do they have a flap behind them to keep water from hitting you after passing through the zipper. Is the hood adjustable? is it helmet compatible? Are the pockets at the same height as a backpacks waist belt (which makes them unusable when wearing a pack!) Interior pocket(s)? Napolean pocket? phone/ipod pocket? How do the wrist cuffs adjust? Can you operate them with a gloved hand? Is it cut longer in the back so I when I bend over to load a kayak or pick up a pack my lower back isn't exposed to cold and rain? Are the arms a little long, so when I reach over my head my wrists aren't exposed? How big are the pit zips? I think of pit zips as the jackets designer telling me how well it is going to breath. If it breathes really well it doesn't need pit zips, but if they run from the waist to your elbow you are in for a wet ride! My last eVent jacket had no pit zips, though you could make the argument that the pockets on the front would offer some venting because they were backed with mesh. If you are really fanatical, look at the way pocket zippers are finished, do they just stop, leaving a tiny hole - about the size of a pencil point - at the end? or does the zipper slider (which is the part that joins the two ends of the zipper into one) end in a zipper garage? A little 'house' that ensures that the top of the zipper won't leak.
I also never buy a 3 in 1 style jacket. These are shell jackets that when you buy them they come with an insulation piece of some sort. A fleece, or some other kind of interior jacket with the intention of insulation, that connects to the outer shell. Essentially making one jacket. So you get an outer shell (piece 1) an inner insulation piece (piece 2) and put them together and use them together (piece 3). Traditionally you can zip the pieces together by means of a second interior zipper - called a second track - I don't like these because usually you will be stuck with one of the pieces being inferior. And while they do save you a little money, if you wouldn't use both pieces individually then it is actually costing you money in the long run. Finally, you never want the interior jacket connected to the outer jacket - if you are really active in the outdoors. There are two reasons, the first, it inhibits movement slightly. Skiers complain about this the most, as the direction of movement that is hindered is side to side. The bigger reason is that when active, you should always be adjusting layers. The rain stopped? take off the shell. It's raining but got warmer as I descended the ridge? Dump the liner, and keep the shell. Those adjustments are much harder to make with the two pieces zipped together.
Finally, when looking for a new shell, I think about sizing. It has to fit big enough to fit an insulation layer underneath it, like a fleece or a primaloft jacket. I will use this jacket all year, from rain protection in the dead of summer, to wind, snow and ice protection in the dead of winter. I need to be able to adjust accordingly with layers from super thin weight for wicking, to super thick for insulation. Always try a jacket on with different layer types underneath it.
So how do I know when my jacket is at the end of it's life? First, you need a benchmark. When you buy a new jacket, splash some water on it so you can see how actively water beads up on the surface. This happens because the jacket is coated with a Durable Water Repellent finish or DWR. DWR helps keep the pours of the jacket open, so it can breath. When the jacket gets dirty, it slows or stops breathability, and can become a conduit for moisture to move inside the jacket, particularly with eVent who states that you should wash their jackets frequently.Of course the more you wash a jacket, the more the originally DWR coating wears off. Also, the more you ball a jacket up and stuff it in your bag, the faster that DWR finish is removed. When the jacket stops beading up water it is time to reapply the DWR finish with a product like Nikwax TX Direct. This is available in both a spray, and a wash in, I prefer the wash in as it gets very even coverage. But before you re-apply the DWR your jacket needs to be cleaned, and regular laundry soap isn't going to cut it. First you need to wash it with another Nikwax product, Techwash. I have used products other than Nikwax and in my opinion they don't work as well. This will clean it thoroughly, and prepare the surface for the coming DWR - which won't adhere if the jacket is dirty or is washed first in regular laundry soap - regular laundry soap leaves a microscopic film on the jacket that keeps the new DWR finish from adhering. So if your jacket stops beading water, it doesn't mean it is time for a new jacket, it just means you need to reapply the DWR, which costs about $20 for both the cleaner and the finish. (I have been told that ironing your jacket can revitalize the DWR, and ironing right after applying your new DWR finish helps it adhere to the jacket better - thereby lasting longer. I haven't had the guts to take an iron to my jacket, but I do put my jacket in the dryer on low heat which helps it adhere as well. ) As always check labels and follow the manufacturers instructions.
So when is it time for a new jacket? When it does what mine did, which is this. After a lot of use, the tape that covers the seams started to come off. So I washed the jacket in preparation to send the jacket to the west coast to have the damaged sections re-taped. When it came out of the wash, all the taped seams had come off, and the seal that contained the waist drawcord had come open too. It would have cost as much to have the jacket re-taped, as to buy a new jacket. You may also see the interior coating on the jacket start to flake off. It will leave little pieces of white fluff everywhere you go, this is the jacket delaminating - the waterproof membrane is literally separating into its components and falling apart. This is another sign that the jacket is dead.
So what am I going to get to replace my beloved jacket? Very few companies work with eVent, because to do so means that you can't also work with Gore-tex, and even though eVent is a better product, everyone active in the outdoors knows Gore-tex. The few companies that do make eVent only offer jackets outside of my price range, or don't offer some of the features listed above. Currently, in my opinion, the best jackets on the market today are made by Arc Teryx. They meet all of my requirements except they use Goretex instead of eVent. But that isn't the reason I hesitate. I hesitate because they have a reputation to be worn by people who want to look like the play or work in the outdoors more then they actually do work or play in the outdoors. Kind of like driving a BMW, I don't want people to notice the brand of jacket I wear before they even start a class with me. With that said, I know a number of instructors who swear by them, and it will probably be what I end up going with.